A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

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What happens in A Streetcar Named Desire?

  • In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois moves in with her sister, Stella. Stella's husband, Stanley Kowalski, dislikes Blanche.
  • Tensions between the educated, condescending Blanche and the brutish, overly masculine Stanley quickly escalate, and though the pregnant Stella sympathizes with her sister at the beginning of the play, she's intoxicated by Stanley's sexuality and takes his side.

  • Blanche briefly finds respite in Stanley's friend Mitch, who's attracted to her and presents her with the possibility of a better life. He quickly loses interest in her, however, and she's left to face Stanley alone.

  • At the climax of the play, Stanley rapes Blanche in the heat of an argument. Blanche has a breakdown as a result of this and is taken to a mental institution in the final scene.

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Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

On a streetcar named Desire, Blanche DuBois travels from the railroad station in New Orleans to a street named Elysian Fields, where her sister, Stella, pregnant and married to Stanley Kowalski, lives in a run-down apartment building in the old French Quarter. Having lost her husband, parents, teaching position, and old family home—Belle Reve in Laurel, Mississippi—Blanche has nowhere to turn but to her one remaining close relative.

Thirty years old, Blanche is emotionally and economically destitute. The most traumatic experience in her life was the discovery that her husband—a poet whom she had married at the tender age of sixteen—was a homosexual. Soon after she had taunted him for his sexual impotence, he committed suicide. Their confrontation had occurred in Moon Lake Casino, ubiquitous in Williams’s plays as a house of illusions. In her subsequent guilt over his death, she found temporary release in a series of sexual affairs, the latest having involved one of her young students and resulting in her dismissal.

She is horrified at the circumstances in which her sister Stella lives and at the man to whom she is married. Polish, uneducated, inarticulate, and working class, but sexually attractive, he has won Stella by his sheer masculinity. Stella, according to production notes by director Elia Kazan, has been narcotized by his sexual superiority. A fourth important character, Stanley’s poker-playing companion Mitch, is attracted to Blanche. She is attracted to his kindness to her, for he is gentle in his manner, as Stanley is not. Blanche refers at one point to having found God in Mitch’s arms, a religious reference frequently made by Williams’s characters at important moments in their lives.

The action of the play, then, as in Greek tragedy, consists of the final events in Blanche’s life. Tensions grow between her and Stanley, even as her physical attraction to him becomes palpable. She expresses her contempt for his coarseness and animality. In scene after scene, she reminds him constantly of their cultural differences. Their hostilities develop into a Strindbergian battle of the sexes for the affection of Stella. Blanche eventually loses not only Stella but also Mitch, a possible husband.

The theatrically ironic climax occurs on Blanche’s birthday while Stella is in the hospital giving birth to her baby. Blanche has prettied up the apartment for her birthday. Drunk and inflamed by Blanche’s taunts into proving his superiority, Stanley rapes her in what is Williams’s most famous and most highly theatrical scene. Simultaneously repulsed and attracted by his sheer rawness, Blanche acts out her final rebellion against her genteel but sexually repressive background, as though to punish herself for violating her “soul.” Her struggle with Stanley is the last in a series of losses in Blanche’s life. Her delicate sensibility already strained to the breaking point when she had first arrived, she breaks down and at the end is led away to a mental institution.

As in The Glass Menagerie , there are candles, these on Blanche’s birthday cake. Like the lights that go out in Laura’s life and that forever...

(The entire section is 937 words.)